The Polish director tells BIRN she decided to make a movie about the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border because the situation for migrants there reminded her of scenes from the early days of the Holocaust.
In her latest awarding-winning movie Green Border (Zielona granica), Polish director Agnieszka Holland uses the stories of a Syrian family, a Polish border guard and a group of activists who try to help the migrants, to bring events at the Polish-Belarusian border since the summer of 2021 to a wider audience.
While not formally a documentary, many of the scenes in the movie are inspired by real events, as tens of thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, are repeatedly pushed back over the border as they try to get into Europe via this new migrant route created by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko as part of a hybrid war with the West.
Among other scenes, the film portrays Polish border guards throwing a pregnant woman back over the border, which led to her miscarrying, as well as the dumping of a dead body on the Belarusian side – evidence for all of which exists with her team, Holland says.
Speaking to BIRN in a phone interview from Paris, Holland says she decided she had to make a movie about the border situation after seeing events unfold at Usnarz Gorny, where, in August 2021, 32 Afghan migrants were kept by the authorities for weeks in a field, without access to asylum procedures, shelter or medicine – a moment which brought the border crisis to the attention of the wider Polish public.
“I had been following the European refugee crisis since 2015,” Holland recounts. “Back then, all the anti-refugee and anti-migration rhetoric of the Polish government was more or less just political propaganda.”
“But, when it started in Poland – and Usnarz Gorny was the turning point – I knew where we were headed. Now, the same government was facing real refugees and migrants, and they had to make decisions. And what they did at Usnarz Gorny was create a laboratory of violence and lies,” she argues.
Holland said the situation at Usnarz Gorny reminded her of events in 1938 at Zbaszyn, on the former German-Polish border, where thousands of Jewish people of Polish origin were stuck for months on the border, facing illness and death, after Germany deported them and Poland refused to let them back in, having previously removed their Polish citizenship.
“Symbolically speaking, we could say this was the beginning of the Holocaust,” Holland explains. “That’s because Herschel Grynszpan, a student in Paris at the time, received a letter from his parents describing the conditions at Zbaszyn, and was so shocked and angry that he went to the German consulate in Paris and killed the German official he thought was in charge.”
That assassination was later used by Nazi authorities as a pretext for Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom often presented as the beginning of the Holocaust.
Holland says with that historical parallel in mind, she was particularly alarmed when the Polish government decided in September 2021 to impose a state of emergency at the Belarusian border, which cut off access by humanitarian workers, medics and media to precisely the area where migrants were being pushed back and needed help.
“[PiS leader Jaroslaw] Kaczynski then explicitly stated that the Americans lost the war in Vietnam because they allowed the media to be there,” Holland says. “That was very cynical. It was the government admitting that they are doing something wrong and they want to have no traces of it left. It made me feel angry and powerless.”
“And then I thought that everything I made so far – all my movies about crimes against humanity, about the Holocaust and Holodomor, it not only gave me a reason but it actually made it my duty to tell that story, of what was happening right now next to my home,” she says.
Born in 1948, Holland is Poland’s most prominent film director, whose movies, including “Europa, Europa”, “In the Darkness” or “Citizen Jones”, often focus on the experiences and moral dilemmas that individuals face at major historical junctures.
“What really interests me is no so much the global mechanisms, but the impact on individual lives of this big theatre of history,” she says.
Holland, who directs in Poland and abroad, including in Hollywood, has during a glittering career received several Oscar nominations and is currently president of the European Film Academy.
Green Border premiered in early September at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Award. The film opened in Poland on September 22, and since then has been seen by more than 425,000 moviegoers, more than any other Polish movie this year.
In November, Holland is set to receive the Special Fuoricampo Prize – given to films that “explore themes linked to the deepest meaning of life and shaken consciences” – at a Vatican film festival set up by the late Polish-born pope, John Paul II.
Yet the movie has also been met by an extraordinary backlash from the Polish government, with every high-ranking member of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party as well as President Andrzej Duda condemning it before it even opened.
Most notoriously, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared the movie to Nazi propaganda – Holland has since sued the minister – and President Duda commented on the movie by referring to an earlier statement made by a Polish border guard on social media: “Only pigs sit in cinemas”.
Duda further explained his position: “If Mrs Holland is depicting our border guards, who are doing their job for Polish society, for our security, in this manner, then I am not surprised that the border guards, after seeing the movie, used a phrase known to us from the times of the Nazi occupation when they used to show Nazi propaganda films in our cinemas.”
Such criticism is particularly nauseating given that Holland’s father was Jewish and members of her family were victims of the Holocaust.
Holland says that even though she had expected a backlash, she was surprised by how “violent and shameless” it was. Clarifying that the launch of the movie during the Polish electoral campaign was accidental and caused by the festival schedule, the director said the reaction from the nationalist-populist government is clear confirmation she’s telling uncomfortable truths.
Beyond the condemnation from the government and its supporters, who have turned up to protest outside at several cinemas, Holland says she is positively surprised both by the popularity of the movie and the emotional responses it is provoking.
“The reactions I get from the audience at the screenings is something I have never experienced before in my life,” Holland tells BIRN. “It feels like collective therapy. People get together and speak about things they never spoke about before in cinemas.”
The film has also had a cathartic or otherwise visceral effect on many of the activists engaged with supporting migrants on the border.
In a social media post after seeing the movie, Dr Paulina Bownik, who has been awarded for her volunteer work with refugees at the border, describes throwing up and feeling physically sick after seeing the movie. “I finished watching the movie seven hours ago. I threw up. I went for a walk with the kids. Then I threw up again. I went for a meeting with activists and a psychologist. The first hour I burped, then I stopped, and now everything hurts terribly. Every little bone,” she wrote.
“This movie is a homage to them, to the activists that have helped at the border,” Holland says, commenting on Bownik’s reaction. “So far, they have been nameless shadows to the general public, which has very little idea about what it looks like, what the activists do.”
“That’s why it was so important for me to show, with documentary-like precision, what it looks like when the activists meet people in the forest and help them, even if I knew it would make the film longer,” she says.
“So many of these activists, as well as the refugees and some of the more sensitive border guards now live with PTSD,” continues Holland. “That politics hurts so deeply, not only by killing refugees but also by wounding so many people in these other ways – that is a real sin. And I hope they will pay for that, not just through my movie but also in life.”
In speaking about the need for her movie, Holland also points a finger at the “other side of the political scene” for “not having the courage and decency to create a counter-narrative”.
“Because of that, the Polish people, not only those who live on the border but the Polish people in general, were abandoned in some kind of empty space without any kind of narrative about values in connection to this crisis – not even a basic Christian narrative about the need to help others,” she explains.
Green Border, then, attempts to fill a narrative space that neither the political opposition in Poland nor the Polish Catholic Church have taken responsibility for, the director says.
Despite being aware her movie is unlikely to alter “the big political terms” of the migration debate in Poland or Europe, she is hopeful it might inform and change the minds of those who are either uninformed or undecided, or who get their information only from pro-government sources.
Ultimately, what really matters, Holland says, is “to give voice to the voiceless”.
Source : Balkaninsight